SAN FRANCISCO — It was a showdown of big swings — as a Central Coast Section Open Division volleyball match should be.
Big swings from either side of the net led to big swings on the scoreboard in No. 8 Menlo School’s five-set showdown at top-seed Sacred Heart Cathedral. But after the Lady Knights (22-11 overall) rallied for a 2 sets to 1 swing, powerhouse SHC — entering play ranked eighth in the state and No. 44 in the nation — proved too powerful a force.
In the end, the Fightin’ Irish (28-6) rode three double-digit kill performances to a dominant finish in Saturday’s CCS opener for a 25-17, 17-25, 23-25, 25-14, 15-4 victory over Menlo.
“This is one of the better hitting teams we’ve seen,” Menlo senior Grace King said. “And also they play very fast on their side, which we were expecting, but still it’s hard to adjust.”
King and her fellow outside hitter, senior Sianna Houghton, swung up a frenzy against an SHC squad that made them work for every kill they scored. King totaled a team-high 13 kills, but managed just a .108 hitting percentage. Houghton hit for a flat .000 percentage while adding 10 kills.
“Every time we took a hit we wanted to score,” Menlo head coach Marco Paglialunga said. “So sometimes we lose our patience.”
Had it not been for running an attack through the middle, as the Knights did from the outset, it would have been a much shorter night. Senior middle Anna Guirogassian produced 10 kills, while freshman middle Sharon Nejad added six, including hammering away for five kills in the opening set.
While Menlo outdid SHC in the kill department 10-9 in each of the first two sets, the Knights had trouble relaxing into their game from the outset. Menlo committed a whopping 15 unforced errors in Game 1, 10 field errors and five service faults.
“I think in the first set, we weren’t ready offensively,” Paglialunga said. “Without taking any credit from them — they did a beautiful job — but we didn’t do anything in the first set.”
The Knights played it close until the middle of the set. Trailing 12-10, they watched the Irish go on a five-point run, during which senior outside hitter Lauren Chen scored her fourth set kill. Menlo’s saving grace was holding SHC junior outside Skylar Canady to one kill in the first set — and that was a put-back on an over-dig — but as the match wore on, it was Canady who combined with Chen to carry the Irish.
Canady went on to finish with a match-high 17 kills, Chen totaled 12 and junior Megan Lenn shifted around the front row to add 10.
“They’ve been phenomenal all season long,” SHC head coach Margi Beima said. “We’ve been lucky to have mids that work really hard and can get us some kills, and some pin hitters … that can get us kills and blocks.”
Game 2 saw Menlo, with its backs against the wall, find its footing in a hurry.
SHC opened the set on a 4-0 run, capped by Canady’s wicked roll shot off the left side. After a quick Menlo timeout, the Knights picked up two difficult shots with skillful digs from Houghton and sophomore opposite Roxy Karrer, to finish with King’s first match kill. King went on to put down six kills in the set.
The Irish worked back to tie it 13-13 on a Lenn cross-shot off the left side. Karrer answered back with a kill to force a side-out, then served up an ace during a four-point Menlo run. SHC closed it to 17-16, but wouldn’t get as close again after Houghton responded with a left-side bolt for her only kill of the match-tying set.
“We had a couple good rotational servings, and we played them out of system,” Paglialunga said. “And we finally found the line hitting.”
Game 3 seemed like the back-and-forth battle the match would hinge on. After Menlo senior Riley Holland manned the libero position though the first two sets, injuries forced her into rotational duty on the back row while junior Abby Holleran donned the libero’s jersey.
Holleran was on point, even with the Irish beginning to vary its attacking lines. The score was tied at 14 different junctures, and as late 18-18. But a block by Guirogassian gave Menlo a slight 19-18 advantage, and the lead held up. But after earning four set points with a 24-20 lead, the Knights needed all of them to close out Game 3, as Canady slammed down an over-pass to draw close at 24-23.
To close out the set, SHC looked as though it might send it to extra-point when Canady took a set off the left side, but the junior whiffed into the net to give Menlo a 2 sets to 1 lead.
“The shift for us was letting go of the pressure of winning the game,” Beima said. “Just letting go of that and just focusing on the next point. … When we do that, we play good volleyball and our energy is great.”
The defense of SHC libero Ashley Chan supplied plenty energy. The junior totaled a match-high 18 digs. Houghton countered with a team-high 15 digs for Menlo, while King added 10.
In Game 4, SHC opened a quick 7-3 lead. Menlo closed it to 7-6, but King followed with a service fault. After the Irish bumped it to 10-7, the Knights never again got within 3.
“I think [going into Game 5 knew it was going to be harder,” King said. “So we were expecting them to come out with a lot of intensity, which they did.”
SHC caught the Knights off-guard to open the fifth set, running a string of attacks from the right side. Lenn produced two early kills at opposite hitter to stoke a quick 4-1 lead, and Menlo never recovered. The Knights’ last point was Guirrogassian’s second match block to make it 10-4, but the Irish closed on a 5-0 run.
SHC now advances to the Open Division semifinals Tuesday to face No. 5 Palo Alto. In the other semifinal match, No. 3 St. Ignatius faces No. 7 Valley Christian. Both semis will be hosted by Gunn High School-Palo Alto starting at 5:30 p.m.
St. Ignatius (26-13) advances by virtue of its five-set win over No. 6 Menlo-Atherton (23-5) in a thrilling finish 21-25, 25-17, 25-10, 18-25, 15-13. M-A sophomore Emma Spindt scored a team-high 17 kills, while senior Alicia Letvin added 12 kills and four blocks. Senior libero Erica Fischer totaled 20 digs.
By virtue of qualifying for the CCS Open Division playoffs, both Menlo and M-A earn automatic bids to the CIF State Volleyball Championships starting Nov. 6. Menlo earned the CIF Division IV state championship in 2016, while M-A was the state runner-up in the Division I tournament in both ’15 and ’16.
“Definitely, this next week or so will be a good time to recuperate,” King said, “and figure out what we need to make it all the way.”